By Ernie Bower
We are waking up in a Washington, DC that has seriously eroded its standing in Asia with the cancellation of the president’s trip and may be about to test global financial markets by playing Russian roulette with a debt default.
Allies and strategic partners across Asia will have no choice but to pursue various levels of hedging behavior as the United States signals that its political system does not allow for consistent top level engagement of the region.
Those seeking to compete for power and influence will see a signal to step on the gas, as the Chinese did during U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and again during our financial crisis. Beijing formally submitted the nine dash line claim to the United Nations around the South China Sea in 2009 during the nadir of the U.S. financial cycle.
While Washington and Beijing have done a credible job of expanding cooperation in the region, they are also engaged in a very real competition that ranges from hard to soft power. China sees an opportunity in the cancellation of Obama’s trip.
The announcement that the president could not travel due to Washington’s partisan wrangling fit perfectly into a Beijing narrative that includes the United States not being able, for a number of reasons from financial health to political determination, to sustain a high level focus on the Indo-Pacific. China does not care, and frankly neither do U.S. allies, strategic partners and close friends, what the details are, but the bottom line is that as Asia organizes itself, the president of the United States is not able to attend the annual board meeting. The message has been sent.
China’s leaders Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are taking a page from the Chinese charm offensive that was executed by their predecessors Hu and Wen. President Xi visited Malaysia on October 3 even as Malaysians digested the disappointing news that President Obama would not be coming after a 47 year hiatus from any U.S. president visiting Kuala Lumpur. Premier Li announced additional stops in Thailand and Vietnam to his planned travel in ASEAN.
If China is as determined and politically nimble as it was after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-1998, it could truly steal the show in competing for ASEAN hearts and minds. China’s leaders could seize the moment, show a new face of cooperation to their neighbors, and agree to sign a binding code of conduct for resolving disputes in the South China Sea. This would also likely come with a big offer to fund joint development and genuinely share equity in energy development projects in the region. The latter was missing in earlier Chinese initiatives which were thinly veiled attempts to co-opt and control potential partners in the Philippines and Vietnam under the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU).
For the United States, the splattering embarrassment of canceling the president’s trip, squashing financial markets and sending the world a cable that we are not a credible partner needs to result in a significant reordering of the system used to focus on national interests. Otherwise, this chapter in American history will indeed be one of relative decline in the country’s global clout and an accelerated, badly managed move toward a multi-polar system.
That outcome is not acceptable. Leadership is now required from those within and outside government to say, “enough is enough,” and refocus the United States on its national security and economic competitiveness.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.